[back to menu for this book ...]
GETTING UP A PANTOMIME.
CHRISTMAS is coming. Cold weather, snow in the streets,
mince-pies, and our little boys and girls home for the holidays. Kind-hearted
people's donations for the poor-boxes. Turkeys from the country; Goose Clubs in
town; plums and candied citron in the windows of the grocers' shops; hot elder
wine; snap-dragon; hunt the slipper; and the butchers' and bakers' quarterly
bills. The great Anniversary of Humanity gives signs of its approach, and with
it the joyfulness, and unbending, and unstarching of white neckcloths, and
unaffected charity, and genial hand-shaking and good fellowship, which, once a
year at least, dispel the fog of caste and prejudice in this land of England.
Christmas is coming, and, in his jovial train, come also the Pantomimes.
Goodness! though we know their stories all by heart, how we love those same Pantomimes still! Though we have seen the same Clowns steal the same sausages, and have been asked by the Pantaloon 'how we were to-morrow?' for years and years, how we delight in the same Clown and Pantaloon still! There can't be anything aesthetic in a pantomime - it must be deficient in the 'unities;' it has no 'epopoea,' or anything in the shape of dramatic property, connected with it: yet it must have something good about it to make us roar at the old, old jokes, and wonder at the old tricks, and be delighted with the old spangled fairies, and coloured fires. Perhaps there may be something in the festive season, something contagious in the wintry jollity of the year, that causes us, churchwardens, householders, hard men of business, that we may be, to forget parochial squabbles, taxes and water-rates, discount and agiotage, for hours, and enter, heart and soul, into participation and appreciation of the mysteries of Harlequin Fee-fo-fum; or the Enchanted Fairy of the Island of Abracadabra.' Possibly there may be something in the shrill laughter, the ecstatic hand-clapping, the shouts of triumphant laughter of the little children, yonder. It may be, after all, that the sausages and the spangles, the tricks and coloured fires of Harlequin Fee-fo-fum may strike some long-forgotten chords; rummage up long-hidden sympathies; wake up kindly feel-[-17-]ings and remembrances of things that were, ere parochial squabbles, water-rates, and discount had being; when we too were little children; when our jackets buttoned over our trousers, and we wore frills round our necks, and long blue sashes round our waists. Else why should something like a wateriness in the eye, and a huskiness in the throat (not sorrowful, though) come over us, amid the most excruciatingly comic portion of the 'comic business?' Else why should the lights, and the music, the children's laughter, and the spangled fairies conjure up that mind-picture, half dim and half distinct, of our Christmasses years ago; of 'Magnall's Questions,' and emancipation from the cane of grandmamma, who always kept sweetstuff in her pockets; of Uncle William, who was never without a store of half-crowns wherewith to 'tip' us; of poor Sister Gussey, who died; of the childish joys and griefs, the hopes and fears of Christmas, in the year eighteen hundred and-; never mind how many.
Hip, hip, hip! for the Pantomime, however! Exultingly watch the Clown through his nefarious career; roar at Jack - pudding tumbling; admire the paint on his face; marvel at the 'halls of splendour' and 'glittering coral caves of the Genius of the Sea,' till midnight comes, and the green baize curtain rolls slowly down, and brown holland draperies cover the ormolu decorations of the boxes. Then, if you can spare half an hour, send the little children home to Brompton with the best of governesses, and tarry awhile with me while I discourse of what goes on behind that same green curtain, of what has gone on, before the Clown could steal his sausages, or the spangled Fairy change an oak into a magic temple, or the coloured fires light up the 'Home of Beauty in the Lake of the Silver Swans.' Let me, as briefly and succinctly as I can, endeavour to give you an idea of the immense labour, and industry, and perseverance - of the nice ingenuity, and patient mechanical skill - of the various knowledge, necessary, nay, indispensable - ere Harlequin Fee-fo-fum can be put upon the stage; ere the green baize can rise, disclosing the coral caves of the Genius of the Sea. Let us put on the cap of Fortunio, and the stilts of Asmodeus; let us go back to when the pantomime was but an embryo of comicality, and, in its progress towards the glory of full-blown pantomime-hood, watch the labours of the Ants behind the Baize - ants, without exaggeration; for, if ever there was a human ant-hill, the working department of a theatre is something of that sort.
[-18-] And mere amusement - your mere enlightenment on a subject, of which my readers may possibly be ignorant, are not the sole objects I have in view. I do honestly think that the theatrical profession and its professors are somewhat calumniated; that people are rather too apt to call theatres sinks of iniquity and dens of depravity, and to set down all actors as a species of diverting vagabonds, who have acquired a knowledge of their calling without study, and exercise it without labour. I imagine, that if a little more were known of how hard-working, industrious, and persevering theatricals, as a body, generally are,- of what has to be done behind the scenes of a theatre, and how it is done for our amusement, - we should look upon the drama with a more favourable eye, and look upon even poor Jack-pudding (when he has washed the paint off his face) with a little more charity and forbearance.
Fortunio-capped, then, we stand in the green-room of the Theatre Royal, Hatton Garden, one dark November morning, while the stage-manager reads the manuscript of the opening to the new grand pantomime of Harlequin Fee-fo-fum. The dramatic performem - the pantomimists are not present at this reading, the lecture being preliminary, and intended for the sole behoof of the working ants of the theatrical ant-hill - the fighting ants will have another reading to themselves. This morning are assembled the scene-painter, an individual be- spattered from head to foot with splashes of various colours, attired in a painted, ragged blouse, a battered cap, and slipshod slippers. You would be rather surprised to see him turn out, when his work is over, dressed like a gentleman (as he is, and an accomplished gentleman to boot). Near him is the property-man, also painted and bespattered, and strongly perfumed with a mingled odour of glue and turpentine. Then there is the carpenter, who twirls a wide-awake hat between his fingers, and whose attire generally betrays an embroidery of shavings. The leader of the band is present. On the edge of a chair sits the author - not necessarily a seedy man, with long hair and a manuscript peeping out of his coat pocket, but a well-to-do looking gentleman, probably; with rather a nervous air just now, and wincing somewhat, as the droning voice of the stage-manager gives utterance to his comic combinations, and his creamiest jokes are met with immovable stolidity from the persons present. Catch them laughing! The scene-painter is thinking of 'heavy sets' and 'cut [-19-] cloths' instead of quips and conundrums. The carpenter cogitates on 'sinks' and 'slides', 'strikes' and 'pulls'. The property-man ponders ruefully on the immense number of comic masks to model, and coral branches to paint; while the master and mistress of the wardrobe, whom we have hitherto omitted to mention, mentally cast up the number of ells of glazed calico, silk, satin, and velvet required. Lastly, enthroned in awful magnificence in some dim corner, sits the management - a portly, port-wine-voiced management, may be, with a white hat, and a double eye-glass with a broad ribbon. This incarnation of theatrical power throws in an occasional 'Good!' at which the author colours, and sings a mental poean, varied by an ejaculation of 'Can't be done!' - at which the dramatist winces dreadfully.
The reading over, a short, desultory conversation follows. It would be better, Mr. Brush, the painter, suggests, to make the first scene a 'close in,' and not a 'sink.' Mr. Tacks, the carpenter - machinist, we mean - intimates in a somewhat threatening manner, that he shall want a 'power of nails and screws;' while the master of the wardrobe repudiates, with respectful indignation, an economical suggestion of the management touching the renovation of some old ballet dresses by means of new spangles, and the propriety of cutting up an old crimson velvet curtain, used some years before, into costumes for the supernumeraries. As to the leader of the band, he is slowly humming over a very 'Little Warbler' of popular airs, which he thinks he can introduce; while the stage-manager, pencil in hand, fights amicably with the author as to the cuts necessary to make the pantomime read with greater smartness. All, however, agree that it will do; and to each working ant is delivered a 'plot' of what he or she has to manufacture by a given time (generally a month or six weeks from the day of reading). Mr. Brush has a 'plot' of so many pairs of flats and wings, so many 'borders' and set pieces, so many cloths and backings. Mr. Tacks has a similar one, as it is his department to prepare the canvasses and machinery on which Mr. Brush subsequently paints. Mr. Tagg, the wardrobe keeper, is provided with a list of the fairies', demons,' kings,' guards,' and slaves' costumes he is required to confectionner; and Mr. Rosin, the leader, is presented with a complete copy of the pantomime itself, in order that he may study its principal points, and arrange characteristic music for it. As for poor Mr. Gorget, the property-man, he departs [-20-] in a state of pitiable bewilderment, holding in his hand a portentous list of properties required, from regal crowns to red-hot pokers. He impetuously demands how it's all to be done in a month. Done, it will be, notwithstanding. The stage-manager departs in a hurry (in which stage-managers generally are, twenty hours out of the twenty-four), and, entrapping the Clown in the passage (who is an eccentric character of immense comic abilities, and distinguished for training all sorts of animals, from the goose which follows him like a dog, to a jackass-foal which resides in his sitting-room), enters into an animated pantomimic conversation with him, discoursing especially of the immense number of 'bits of fat' for him (Clown) in the pantomime.
The author's name we need not mention; it will appear in the bill, as it has appeared in (and acres) many bills, stamped and unstamped, before. When the officials have retired, he remains awhile with the management - the subject of conversation mainly relating to a piece of grey paper, addressed to Messrs. Coutts, Drummonds, or Childs.
For the next few days, though work has not actually commenced in all its vigour, great preparations are made, Forests of timber, so to speak, are brought in at the stage door. Also, bales of canvas, huge quantities of stuffs for the wardrobe; foil-paper, spangles and Dutch metal, generally. Firkins of size, and barrels of whiting, arrive for Mr. Brush; hundred-weights of glue and gold-leaf for Mr. Gorget, not forgetting the 'power of nails and screws' for Mr. Tacks. Another day, and the ants are all at work behind the baize for Harlequin Fee-fo-fum.
Fortunio's cap will stand us in good stead again, and we had better attach ourselves to the skirts of the stage-manager, who in here, there, and everywhere, to see that the work is being properly proceeded with. The carpenters have been at work since six o'clock this nice wintry morning; let us see how they are getting on after breakfast.
We cross the darkened stage, and, ascending a very narrow staircase at the back thereof mount into the lower range of 'flies.' A mixture this of the between-decks of a ship, a rope-walk, and the old wood-work of the Chain-pier at Brighton. Here are windlasses, capstans, ropes, cables, chains, pulleys innumerable. Take care! or you will stumble across the species of winnowing-machine, used to imitate the noise of wind, and which is close to the large sheet of copper [-21-] which makes the thunder. The tin cylinder, filled with peas, used for rain and hail, is down stairs; but you may see the wires, or 'travellers,' used by 'flying fairies,' and the huge counterweights and lines which work the curtain and act- drop. Up then, again, by a ladder, into range of flies, No. 2, where there are more pulleys, windlasses, and counterweights, with bridges crossing the stage, and lines working the borders, and gas-pipes, with coloured screens, called 'mediums,' which are used to throw a lurid light of a moonlight on scenes of battles or conflagrations, where the employment of coloured fires is not desirable. Another ladder (a rope one this time) has still to be climbed: and now we find ourselves close to the roof of the theatre, and in the Carpenters' Shop.
Such a noise of sawing and chopping, hammering and chiselling! The shop is a large one, its size corresponding to the area of the stage beneath. Twenty or thirty men are at work, putting together the framework of 'flats,' and covering the framework itself with canvas. Some are constructing the long cylinders, or rollers, used for 'drops,' or 'cloths;' while others, on their knees, are busily following with a hand-saw the outline of a rock, or tree, marked in red lead by the scene-painter or profile (thin wood) required for a set piece. Mr. Tacks is in his glory, with the 'power of nails and screws' around him. He pounces on the official immediately. He must have 'more nails,' more 'hands;' spreading out his own emphatically. 'Give him hands!' The stage-manager pacifies and promises. Stand by, there, while four brawny carpenters rush from another portion of the 'shop' with the 'Pagoda of Arabian Delights.' dimly looming through canvas and whitewash!
A curious race of men these theatrical carpenters. Some of them growl scraps of Italian operas, or melodramatic music, as they work. They are full of traditional lore anent the 'Lane' and the 'Garden' in days of yore. Probably their fathers and grandfathers were theatrical before them for it is rare to find a carpenter of ordinary life at stage work or vice versa. Malignant members of the ordinary trade whisper even that their work never lasts, and is only fit for the ideal carpentry of a theatre. There is a legend, also, that a stage carpenter being employed once to make a coffin, constructed it after the Hamlet manner, and ornamented it with scroll work. They preserve admirable discipline, and obey the [-22-] master carpenter implicity; but, work once over, and out of the theatre, he is no more than one of themselves, and takes beer with Tom or Bill, and the chair at their committee and sick-club reunions, in a perfectly republican and fraternal manner. These men labour from six in the morning until six in the evening; and, probably, as Fee-fo-fum is a 'heavy pantomime,' from seven until the close of the performances. At night, when the gas battens below the flies are all lighted, the heat is somewhat oppressive: and, if you lie on your face on the floor, and gaze through the chinks of the planking, you will hear the music in the orchestra, and catch an occasional glimpse of the performers on the stage beneath, marvellously foreshortened, and microscopically diminished. The morning we pay our visit, a rehearsal is going on below, and a hoarse command is wafted from the stage to 'stop that hammering' while Marc Antony is pronouncing his oration over the dead body of Caesar. The stage-manager, of course, is now wanted down stairs, and departs, with an oft-iterated injunction to 'get on.' We, too, must get on without him.
We enter another carpenters shop, smaller, but on the same level, and occupying a space above the horse-shoe ceiling of the audience part of the theatre. A sort of martello of wood occupies the centre of this apartment, its summit going through the roof. This is at once the ventilator, and the 'chandelier house' of the theatre. If we open a small door, we can descry, as our eyes become accustomed to the semidarkness, that it is floored with iron, in ornamented scroll-work, and opening with a hinged trap. We can also see the ropes and pulleys, to which are suspended the great centre chandelier, and by which it is hauled up every Monday morning to be cleaned. More carpenters are busily at work, at bench and trestles, sawing, gluing, hammering. Hark! we hear a noise like an eight-day clock on a gigantic scale running down. They are letting down a pair of flats in the painting-room. Let us see what they are about in the painting-room itself.
Pushing aside a door, for ever on the swing, we enter an apartment, somewhat narrow, its length considered, but very lofty. Half the roof, at least, is skylight. A longitudinal aperture in the flooring traverses the room close to the wall. This is the 'cut,' or groove, half a foot wide, and seventy feet in depth, perhaps, in which hangs a screen of wood-work, called a 'frame.' On this frame the scene to be painted is [-23-] placed; and, by means of a counterweight and a windlass is worked up and down the cut, as the painter may require; the sky - being thus as convenient to his hand, as the lowest stone or bit of foliage in the foreground. When the scene is finished, a signal is given to 'stand clear' below, and a bar in the windlass being removed, the frame slides with immense celerity down the cut to the level of the stage. Here the carpenters remove the flats, or wings, or whatever else may have been painted, and the empty frame is wound up again into the painting-room. Sometimes, instead of a cut, a 'bridge' is used. In this case the scene itself remains stationary, and the painter stands on a platform, which is wound up and down by a windlass as he may require it - a ladder being placed against the bridge if he wishes to descend without shifting the position of his platform. When the scene is finished, a trap is opened in the floor, and the scene slung by ropes to the bottom. The 'cut' and frame are, it is needless to say, most convenient, the artist being always able to contemplate the full effect of his work, and to provide himself with what colours, or sketches, he may need, without the trouble of ascending and descending the ladder.
Mr. Brush, more bespattered than ever, with a 'double tie' brush in his hand, is knocking the colour about, bravely. Five or six good men- and true, his assistant., are also employed on the scene he is painting - the fairy palace of Fee-fo-fum, perchance. One is seated at a table, with something very like the toy theatres of our younger days, on which we used to enact that wonderful 'Miller and his Men,' with the famous characters (always in one fierce attitude of triumphant defiance, we remember) of Mr. Park before him. It is, in reality, a model of the stage itself; and the little bits of pasteboard he is cutting out and pasting together form portions of a scene he is modelling 'to scale' for the future guidance of the carpenter. Another is fluting columns with a twin brush called a 'quill tool,' and a long ruler, or 'straight-edge.' Different portions of the scene are allotted to different artists, according to their competence, from Mr. Brush, who finishes and touches up everything, down to the fustian-jacketed whitewasher, who is 'priming' or giving a preparatory coat of whiting and size to a pair of wings.
Are you at all curious to know how the brilliant scenes you see at night are painted; you may watch the whole process of a pair of flats growing into a beautiful picture, under [-24-] Mr. Brush's experienced hands. First, the scene, well primed, and looking like a gigantic sheet of coarse cartridge-paper on a stretcher, is placed on the frame; then, with a long pole, cleft at the end, and in which is stuck a piece of charcoal, Mr. Brush hastily scrawls (as it seems) the outline of the scene he is about to paint. Then, he and his assistants 'draw in' a finished outline with a small brush and common ink, which, darkening as it dries, allows the outline to shine through the first layers of colour. Then, the whitewasher, 'labourer,' as he is technically called, is summoned to 'lay in' the great masses of colour-sky, wall, foreground, &c., which he does with huge brushes. Then, the shadows are 'picked in' by assistants, to whom enters speedily Mr. Brush, with a sketch in one hand, and brushes in the other, and he finishes - finishes, too, with a delicacy of manipulation and nicety of touch which will rather surprise you - previously impressed as you may have been with an idea that scenes are painted with mops, and that scenic artists are a superior class of house-painters. Stay, here is the straight line of a cornice to be ruled from one part of the scene to the other, a space fifty feet wide, perhaps. Two labourers, one at either end, hold a string tightly across where the desired line is to be. The string has been well rubbed with powdered charcoal, and, being held up in some part, for a moment, between the thumb and finger, and then smartly vibrated on to the canvas, again leaves a mark of black charcoal along the whole length of the line, which being followed by the brush and ink, serves for the guide line of the cornice. Again, the wall of that magnificent saloon has to be covered with an elaborate scroll-work pattern. Is all this outlined by the hand, think you? No; a sheet of brown paper, perforated with pin-holes with a portion of the desired pattern, is laid against the scene; the whole is then gently beaten with a worsted bag full of powdered charcoal, which, penetrating through the pin-holes, leaves a dotted outline, capable of repetition ad infinitum by shifting the pattern. This is called 'pouncing.' Then some of the outlines of decoration are 'stencilled;' but for foliage and rocks, flowers and water, I need not tell you, my artistical friend, that the hand of Mr. Brush is the only pouncer and stenciller. For so grand a pantomime as 'Fee-fo-fum,' a scene will, probably, after artistic completion, be enriched with foil paper and Dutch metal. Admire the celerity with which these processes are [-25-] effected. First, an assistant cuts the foil in narrow strips with a penknife; another catches them up like magic, and glues them; another claps them on the canvas, and the scene is foiled. Then Mr. Brush advances with a pot, having a lamp beneath, filled with a composition of Burgundy pitch, rosin, glue, and bees-wax, called 'mordant.' With this and a camel-hair brush, he delicately outlines the parts he wishes gilt. Half a dozen assistants rush forward with books of Dutch metal, and three-fourths of the scene are covered, in a trice, with squares of glittering dross. The superfluous particles are rubbed off with a dry brush, and, amid a very Danaëan shower of golden particles, the outlines of mordant, to which the metal has adhered, become gradually apparent in a glittering net-work.
Around this chamber of the arts are hung pounces and stencils, like the brown-paper patterns in a tailor's shop. There is a ledge running along one side of the room, on which is placed a long row of pots filled with the colours used, which are ground in water, and subsequently tempered with size, a huge cauldron of which is now simmering over the roomy fire-place. The colour-grinder himself stands before a table, supporting an ample stone slab, on which, with a marble muller, he is grinding Dutch pink lustily. The painter's palette is not the oval one used by picture painters, but a downright four-legged table, the edges of which are divided into compartments, each holding its separate dab of colour, while the centre serves as a space whereon to mix and graduate the tints. The whitewashed walls are scrawled over with rough sketches and memoranda, in charcoal or red lead, while a choice engraving, here and there, a box of watercolours, some delicate flowers in a glass, some velvet drapery pinned against the wall, hint that in this timber-roofed, unpapered, uncarpeted, size-and-whitewash-smelling workshop, there is Art as well as Industry.
Though it is only of late years, mind you, that scene-painters have been recognised as Artists at all. They were called 'daubers,' 'whitewashers,' 'paper-hangers,' by that class of artists to whom the velvet cap, the turn-down collars, and the ormolu frame, were as the air they breathed. These last were the gentlemen who thought it beneath the dignity of Art to make designs for wood-engravers, to paint porcelain, to draw patterns for silk manufacturers. Gradually they found out that the scene-painters made better architects, lands[-26-]scape painters, professors of perspective, than they themselves did. Gradually they remembered that in days gone by, such men as Salvator Rosa, Inigo Jones, Canaletto, and Philip do Loutherbourg were scene-painters; and that, in our own times, one Stanfield had not disdained size and whitewash, nor a certain Roberts thought it derogatory to wield the 'double tie' brush. Scene-painting thenceforward looked up; and even the heavy portals of the Academy moved creakingly on their hinges for the admittance of distinguished professors of scenic art.
We have been hindering Mr. Brush quite long enough, I think, even though we are invisible; so let us descend this crazy ladder, which leads from the painting-room down another flight of stairs. So: keep your hands out before you, and tread cautiously, for the management is chary of gas, and the place is pitch dark. Now, as I open this door, shade your eyes with your hand a moment, lest the sudden glare of light dazzles you.
This is the 'property-room'. In this vast, long, low room, are manufactured the 'properties' - all the stage furniture and paraphernalia required during the performance of a play. Look around you and wonder. The walls and ceiling are hung, the floor and tables cumbered with properties : - Shylock's knife and scales, Ophelia's coffin, Paul Pry's umbrella, Macbeth's truncheon, the caldron of the Witches, Harlequin's bat, the sickle of Norma, Mambrino's helmet, swords, lanterns, banners, belts, hats, daggers, wooden sirloins of beef, Louis Quatorze chairs, papier-mâché goblets, pantomime masks, stage money, whips, spears, lutes, flasks of 'rich burgundy,' fruit, rattles, fish, plaster images, drums, cocked hats, spurs, and bugle-horns, are strewn about, without the slightest attempt at arrangement or classification. Tilted against the wall, on one end, is a four-legged banqueting table, very grand indeed, white marble top and golden legs. At this table will noble knights and ladies feast richly off wooden fowls and brown-paper pies, quaffing, meanwhile, deep potations of toast-and-water sherry, or, haply, golden goblets full of nothing at all. Some of the goblets, together with elaborate flasks of exhilarating emptiness, and dishes of rich fruit, more deceptive than Dead Sea apples (for they have not even got ashes inside them), are nailed to the festive board itself. On very great occasions the bowl is wreathed with cotton wool; and the viands smoke with a cloud of powdered lime. Dread-[-27-]fully deceptive are these stage banquets and stage purses.. The haughty Hospodar of Hungary drinks confusion to the Bold Bandit of Bulgaria in a liquorless cup, vainly thirsting, meanwhile, for a pint of mild porter from the adjacent hostelry. Deep are his retainers in the enjoyment of Warden pies and lusty capons, while their too often empty interiors cry dolorously for three penn'orth of cold boiled beef. Liberal is he also of broad florins, and purses of moidores, accidentally drawing, perchance, at the same time, a Lombardian debenture for his boots from the breast of his doublets. The meat is a sham, and the wine a sham, and the money a sham; but are there no other shams, oh, brothers and sisters! besides those of the footlights? Have I not dined with my legs under sham mahogany, illuminated by sham wax-lights? Has not a sham hostess helped me to sham boiled turkey? Has not my sham health been drunk by sham friends? Do I know no haughty Hospodar of Hungary myself?
There is one piece, and one piece only, on the stage, in which a real banquet - a genuine spread - is provided. That piece is 'No Song, No Supper.' However small may be the theatre - however low the state of the finances - the immemorial tradition is respected, and a real leg of mutton graces the board. Once, the chronicle goes, there was a heartless monster, in property-man shape, who substituted a dish of mutton chops for the historical gigot. Execration, abhorrence, expulsion followed his iniquitous fraud, and he was, from that day, a property-man accursed. Curiously enough, while the leg of mutton in 'No Song, No Supper,' is always real, the cake, introduced in the same piece, is as invariably a counterfeit - the old stock wooden cake of the theatre. When it shall be known why waiters wear white neckcloths, and dustmen shorts and ankle jacks, the proximate cause of this discrepancy will, perhaps, be pointed out.
To return to the property-room of the Theatre Royal, Hatton Garden. Mr. Gorget, the property 'master,' as he is called, is working with almost delirious industry. He has an imperial crown on his head (recently gilt - the crown, not the head - and placed there to dry), while on the table before him lies a mass of modelling clay, on which his nimble fingers are shaping out the matrix of a monstrous human face, for a pantomimic mask. How quickly, and with what facility he moulds the hideous physiognomy into shape - squeezing the eyelids, flattening the nose, elongating the mouth, furrowing [-28-] the cheeks! When this clay model is finished, it will be well-oiled, and a cast taken from it in plaster of Paris. Into this cast (oiled again) strips of brown paper, well glued and sized, will be pasted, till a proper thickness is obtained. When dry, the cast is removed, and the hardened paper mask ready for colouring. At this latter process, an assistant, whose nose and cheeks are plentifully enriched with Dutch metal and splashes of glue, is at work. He is very liberal with rose pink to the noses, black to the eyebrows, and white to the eye. Then Mrs. Gorget, a mild little woman, who has been assiduously spangling a demon's helmet, proceeds to ornament the masks with huge masses of oakum and horsehair, red, brown, and black, which are destined to serve as their coiffure. Busily other assistants are painting tables, gilding goblets, and manufacturing the multifarious and bewildering miscellaneous articles required in the 'comic business' of a pantomime; the sausages which the Clown purloins, the bustle he takes from the young lady, the fish, eggs, poultry, warming-pans, babies, pint pots, butchers' trays, and legs of mutton, incidental to his chequered career.
Others besides adults are useful in the property-room. A bright-eyed little girl, Mr. Gorget's youngest, is gravely speckling a plum-pudding; while her brother, a stalwart rogue of eleven, sits on a stool with a pot full of yellow ochre in one hand, and a brush in the other, with which he is giving a plentiful coat of bright yellow colour to a row containing a dozen pairs of hunting-boots. These articles of costume will gleam to-night on the legs and feet of the huntsmen of his highness the Hospodar, with whom you are already acquainted. Their wearers will stamp their soles on the merry green sward-ha, ha!- waving above their heads the tin porringers, supposed to contain Rhine wine or Baerische beer.
Mr. Gorget will have no easy task for the next three weeks. He will have to be up early and late until 'Fee-fo-fum' is produced. The nightly performances have, meanwhile, to be attended to, and any new properties wanted must be made, and any old ones spoilt must be replaced, in addition to what is required for the pantomime. And something more than common abilities must have abiding place in a property-man, although he does not receive uncommonly liberal remuneration. He must be a decent upholsterer, a carpenter, a wig- maker, a painter, a decorator, accurate as regards historical property, a skilful modeller, a facile carver, a tasteful em[-29-]-broiderer, a general handy man and jack-of-all-trades. He must know something of pyrotechnics, a good deal of carving and gilding, and a little of mechanics. By the exercise of all these arts he earns, perhaps, fifty shillings a week.
Come away from the property-room, just a glance into that grim, cavernous, coal-holey place on the left, where all the broken-up, used-out, properties are thrown, and is a sort of limbo of departed pantomimes; and peeping curiously also into the room, where, on racks and on hooks, are arranged the cuirasses, muskets, swords, spears, and defunct yeomanry helmets, of the pattern worn when George the Third was king, which form the armoury of the theatre. Time presses, and we must have a look at the proceedings in the wardrobe.
Mr. Baster is busily stitching, with many other stitchers (females), sedent, and not squatting Jagod-like, all of a row. His place of work is anything but large, and movement is rendered somewhat inconvenient, moreover, by a number of heavy presses, crammed to repletion with the costumes of the establishment. Mr. Baster has been overhauling his stock, to see what he can conveniently use again, and what must indispensably be new. He has passed in review the crimson velvet nobleman, the green-serge retainers, the spangled courtiers, the glazed-calico slaves, the' shirts,' 'shapes,' 'Romaldis,' and 'strips' of other days. He has held up to the light last year's Clown's dress, and shakes his head ruefully, when he contemplates the rents and rivings, the rags and tatters, to which that once brilliant costume is reduced. Clown must, evidently, be new all over. Mr. Baster's forewoman is busy spangling Harlequin's patch-work dress; while, in the hands of his assistants, sprites and genii, slaves and evil spirits, are in various stages of completion. So, in the ladies' wardrobe, where Miss de Loggie and her assistants are stitching for dear life, at 'Sea-nymphs', and 'Sirens', and 'Elfins' costume; and where Miss Mezzanine, who is to play Columbine, is agonizingly inquisitive as to the fit of her skirt and spangles.
Work, work, work, everywhere; - in the dull bleak morning, when play-goers of the previous night have scarcely finished their first sleep; at night, to the music of the orchestra below, and amid the hot glare of the gas. Mr. Tacks carries screws in his waistcoat pockets, and screws in his mouth. Mr. Gorget grows absolutely rigid with glue, while his assistants' heads and bands are unpleasantly en-[-30-]riched with Dutch metal and foil-paper; and the main staircase of the theatre is blocked up with frantic waiters from adjoining hostelries laden with chops and stout for Mr. Brush and his assistants. The Management smiles approvingly, but winces uneasily, occasionally, as Boxing-day draws near; the stage-director is unceasing in his 'get ons.' All day long the private door of the Management is assailed by emissaries from Mr. Tacks for more nails, from Mr. Brush for more Venetian red and burnt sienna, from Mr. Baster for more velvet, from Mr. Gorget for more glue. The Management moves uneasily in its chair. 'Great expense,' it says. 'If it should fail?' 'Give us more nails, "hands," Venetian red, velvet, and glue, and we'll not fail,' chorus the ants behind the baize.
Nor must you suppose that the pantomimists - Clown, Harlequin, Pantaloon, and Columbine - nor the actors playing in the opening, nor the fairies who fly, nor the demons who howl, nor the sprites who tumble, are idle. Every day the opening and comic scenes are rehearsed. Every day a melancholy man, called the repetiteur, takes his station on the stage, which is illumined by one solitary gas jet; and, to the dolour-music he conjures from his fiddle, the pantomimists in over-suits of coarse linen, tumble, dance, jump, and perform other gymnastic exercises in the gloom, until their bones ache, and the perspiration streams from their limbs.
Work, work, work, and Christmas-eve is here. Nails, hammers, paint-brushes, needles, muscles and limbs going in every direction. Mr. Brush has not had his boots cleaned for a week, and might have forgotten what sheets and counter-panes mean. Mr. Brush's lady in Camden Villa is, of course, pleased at the artistic fame her lord will gain in the columns of the newspapers, the day after the production of the pantomimes, but she can't help thinking sometimes that Brush is 'working himself to death.' No man works himself to death, my dear Mrs. B. 'Tis among the idlers, the turners of the heavy head, and the folders of the hands to rest, that death reaps his richest harvest. No snap-dragon for Mr. Tacks, no hunt-the-slipper for Mr. Gorget. Pleasant Christmas greetings and good wishes, though, and general surmises that the pantomime will be a 'stunning' one. Christmas-day, and, alas and alack! no Christmas beef and pudding, save that from the cook-shop, and perchance the spare repast in the covered basin which little Polly Bruggs brings stalwart Bill [-31-] Bruggs, the carpenter, who is popularly supposed to be able to carry a pair of wings beneath each arm. Incessant fiddling from the répetiteur. 'Trip,' 'rally,' and 'jump,' for the Pantomimists. Work on the stage, which is covered with canvas, and stooping painters, working with brushes stuck in bamboo walking-sticks. Work in the flies, and work underneath the stage, on the umbrageous mezzonine floor, where the cellarmen are busily slinging 'sinks' and 'rises,' and greasing traps. An overflow of properties deluges the green-room; huge masks leer at you in narrow passages; pantomimic wheelbarrows and barrel-organs beset you at every step. So all Christmas-night.
Hurrah for Boxing-day! The 'compliments of the season,' and the 'original dustman.' Tommy and Billy (suffering slightly from indigestion) stand with their noses glued against the window-panes at home, watching anxiously the rain in the puddles, or the accumulating snow on the house-tops. Little Mary's mind is filled with radiant visions of the resplendent sashes she is to wear, and the gorgeous fairies she is to see. John, the footman, is to escort the housemaid into the pit; even Joe Barrikin, of the New Cut, who sells us our cauliflowers, will treat his 'missus' to a seat in the gallery for the first performance of Harlequin Fee-fo-fum.
There - the last clink of the hammer is heard, the last stroke of the brush, and the last stitch of the needle. The Management glances with anxious approval at the elaborately funny bill - prepared with the assistance of almost every adult employed in the establishment, who is supposed to have a 'funny' notion about him, subject, of course, to the editorial supervision of the author, if he be in town, and the Management can catch him or he catch the Management - of the evening's entertainment. It is six o'clock in the evening. The Clown (Signor Brownarini, of the Theatres Royal) has a jug of barley-water made, his only beverage during his tumbling, and anxiously assures himself that there is a red-hot poker introduced into the comic business; 'else,' says he, 'the pantomime is sure to fail.' Strange, the close connection between the success of a pantomime and that red-hot poker. A pantomime was produced at a London Theatre-the old Adelphi, I think-without (perhaps through inadvertence) a red-hot poker. The pantomime failed lamentably the first night. Seven o'clock, and one last frantic push to get everything ready. Tommy, Billy, Mary, Papa and Mamma, arrive in [-32-] flies, broughams, or cabs. The footman and housemaid are smiling in the pit; and Joe Barrikin is amazingly jolly and thirsty, with his 'missus' in the gallery. Now then, 'Music!' 'Play up!' 'Order, order!' and, 'Throw him over!,' 'George Barnwell,' or 'Jane Shore,' inaudible of course, and then 'Harlequin Fee-fo-fum, or the Enchanted Fairy of the island of Abracadabra.' Fun, frolic, and gaiety; splendour, beauty, and blue-fire; hey for fun! 'How are you to-morrow?' and I hope success and crowded houses till the middle of February, both for the sake of the author, the Management, and the Theatre Royal, Hatton Garden, generally.
The ants behind the baize have worked well, but they have their reward in the 'glorious success' of the pantomime they have laboured so hard at. They may wash their faces, and have their boots cleaned now; and who shall say that they do not deserve their beer to-night, and their poor salaries next Saturday?
Reader, as Christmas time comes on, pause a little ere you utterly condemn these poor play-acting people as utter profligates, as irreclaimable rogues and vagabonds. Consider how hard they work, how precarious is their employment, how honestly they endeavour to earn their living, and to do their duty in the state of life to which it has pleased Heaven to call them. Admit that there is some skill, some industry, some perseverance, in all this, not misdirected if promoting harmless fancy and innocent mirth.